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Fire, Fire, Burning Bright!

Posted on 06 November 2009


Fire is one of humanity’s most wondrous gifts, an element to be feared as well as respected and cherished.  I’ll wager that it’s nearly impossible to imagine what our lives would be like without fire.


The pilot lights on our hot water heaters enable soothing and comfortable showers, and our stoves and ovens, when lit, deliver a source of nourishing, home cooked food.   A match struck and held to the wick of a candle is a succor and a necessity during a blackout as well as mood setter for romance.  And what would summer be without a barbeque on a hot, fired-up grill?   Camping would not be same without fire.  Where would we sit with our children to tell ghost stories, with the flames making eerie shadows in the dark?  How would we toast S’mores, plain old marshmallows, and hot dogs?  How peacefully could we drift off to sleep in the great outdoors, feeling the blessed heat on our faces and hands, listening in companionable silence to the crackling wood, as the night air turns cool?  


Since fire was first discovered, the art of starting and sustaining a blaze became a critical task.  Once, that was considered a sacred duty entrusted solely to one person in each tribe.  Hot coals had to be maintained to engender sparks needed to create the fire for the next day’s use.  This was an undertaking that could be quite difficult, given inclement weather in which the coals would become damp and extinguish.  The embers also had to be moved from place to place as the tribes searched for new hunting grounds, a mission forced to reflect the migratory habits of herd animals.  To protect them from the elements and facilitate movement, hot coals were wrapped as carefully as newborn babes in birch bark, tobacco, or sage leaves.


Today, producing fire is much easier as matches are widely available, or, you can always “flick your Bic®.”  In ancient times, flint rocks or sticks were rubbed together until the friction caused sparks.  The instant the sparks appeared, the fire was nurtured with tinder, such as thin branches or dry leaves, to produce a larger flame.  Eventually, larger pieces of wood could be added in order to build a roaring fire that would keep predators at bay, light the campgrounds, and enable the cooking of food.  The fire-building process was quite time consuming.  Today, with patience and luck, if you hold a lens, such as that of a magnifying glass, over a flammable item (i.e, a dry leaf), you may be able to start a miniscule fire if the sun cooperates at just the right angle.  Our forebears’ fire-making skills had to be honed constantly as every person in the tribe depended on the ability of the fire-starter.  Great confidence and trust was placed on this person’s shoulders.


A rather graphic telling of how prized fire was among our ancestors can be found in the film, Quest for Fire.  At great cost to their personal safety and with the tribe’s very survival at risk, three young men set out to find fire upon the inimical landscape of prehistoric man and early mammals, such as the wooly mammoth.  When the fire is eventually returned to the tribe only to be lost and then found again (I won’t give away the plot, should you want to rent this gritty and compelling movie), the joy and wonder on the faces of the tribes’ people illustrate us how very precious this commodity was.


Without fire, early homo sapiens may have been forced to leave their hard-won meat out in the sunlight, hoping it would dry enough so it could be preserved to sustain the clan during the lean winter months.  I image that before fire, sushi was a very early discovery!   The act of cooking, in fact, may have been an accident.  Someone may have dropped a potato or a piece of meat into the fire.  Because people in prehistoric times had to fight tooth and nail for every morsel of food, it would have been fished out of the fire with a stick and consumed the moment it had cooled.  Imagine the delight felt by the first early chef!  Suddenly, food was a lot tastier.  It was also healthier, as bacteria were destroyed under high temperatures. 


Fire provided a source of heat, so that our ancestors would not loose as much warmth in cruel weather and live to see another spring.   Fire also furnished a source of light when the nights grew longer with the shortening days.


Many tribes used the smoke from their fires, fanning into a type of S.O.S. signal to warn those who were out on a hunt of an enemy’s approach.  Sometimes this was the only way to make contact with people from a distance. Smoke was also a very helpful method of repelling insects and keeping the wildlife away.  When clay pots were fashioned and literally fired, they enabled the carting of water and foodstuffs for the tribes, which was a great convenience.


As man’s Iron Age dawned, fire tempered crudely hammered-out tools into viable knives, hoes, and other useful implements.  Fire also allowed the tribes to burn off trees and dense brush, to enable planting in soil enriched by the blazes.   Farming, in turn, gave rise to a more sedentary and safer lifestyle in which people could live off the land they cultivated instead of chasing herds of animals as food sources.   Much later, sterilization of medical instruments was linked directly to a speedy recovery process unmarred by the infections caused by dirty instruments.   Prior to this discovery, surgical patients were lucky to have had some liquor poured into their wounds to halt the spread of infection.


In addition to being a boon to our daily lives, fire can also cause mass destruction.  Because of this, we must be respectful in how we treat it.   I have personally experienced two fires while I was growing up.  When you are a child and see your home going up in flames, it is a terrifying experience.  You search frantically for your parents and siblings to make sure they are safe.  Within minutes, your life is reduced to a pile of ashes that blows away in the wind.


Everyone is aware of the destructive nature of fire.  Our enemies use firebombs during wars and acts of terrorism.  Native Americans trying to hold onto their land in the face of colonization would burn people out of the safety of their homes.  Of course, the ultimate fear associated with fire is that of burning in Hell for our sins.  No one wants to imagine the unbearable physical pain and perhaps the worse emotional anguish of actually coming face to face with the Devil!


However, fire builds and cleanses as well as destroys.  When epidemics broke out in times gone by, everything touched or worn by the sick was burned to prevent the spread of infectious disease; bodies were also burned.   When witches were thought to exist, they were burned by the cruel and ignorant throughout Europe and in Salem, Massachusetts, allegedly to excise the “witches” of the wickedness they were supposed to have created.  The Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were burned to rid the world of the cesspools of evil that both towns had become.   Rocker Alice Cooper even has a song called Cleansed by Fire, whose lyrics, in part are “Burn it up, burn it down.  Burn this sucker to the ground.”


Fire, then, is a most powerful element that is widely used and even celebrated.  For instance, when the torch relay is enacted during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, we are reminded of the Greek myth in which Prometheus, a mere mortal, stole fire from the heavens and brought it to Earth for the survival and betterment of mankind.  This Olympic flame is a symbol of peace for all nations, and it is a tremendous honor to be selected to light the torch.


It is our duty, then, to safeguard and respect this wondrous tool.  We do not want to cause harm or strife to anyone by being careless with fire.  Lit cigarettes tossed carelessly out of car windows can destroy forests and communities.  Burning barrels full of autumn leaves can easily rage out of control. Candles left unattended can cause their own havoc.  Take good care not to be the person who causes your neighbor to lose his or her home.   Don’t leave lighters and matches within the reach of curious children, who must be schooled in the dangers of fire.   Cherish the gift we have been given, but do not abuse its great power or destruction will follow. 

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18 Responses to “Fire, Fire, Burning Bright!”

  1. Susan says:

    One can easily understand why the ancients worshipped fire. Whether your gaze is seduced by the small captive flame on a winter hearth or the unimaginable sight of Yellowstone burning, fire takes us straight back to our primeval roots & elicts a reaction that only nature can inspire.

  2. Kathleen Felleca says:

    I saw the film Quest for Fire years ago, and that is why I added it to this article that I edited for Small Town Girl. I think it’ a classic on many levels and am sorry that it is not readily available for purchase or rental. Although the film centers around exactly what the title states, it is also a tale of outstanding courage, friendship, trust, and community.

    Although there isn’t a single intelligble word in the entire film (refined language had yet to be developed) I believe that the movie depicts a moment in the emotional evolution of mankind, and for that, I heartily recommend the film.

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